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Bigger is better? Not for this boat show

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It’s nice to be in on the ground floor of something in this business. That way, when you circle back in 10 or more years you can say, “Oh, yeah, I remember when this event was just getting off the ground.”

That’s the sort of the feeling I got roaming the docks at the second annual Spring Boat Show last weekend (April 29-May 1) in Essex, Conn., the home port of both Trade Only and her consumer complement, Soundings magazine, a show sponsor.

What might this small, embryonic event look like in a decade? I almost said “when it grows up,” but the mindset behind this show is anything but bigger is better.

The idea up to now has been to keep the event small and local (Essex brokers only) to emphasize quality over quantity in a relaxed, unhurried environment. This year Brewer Dauntless Marina hosted about 50 boats up to 60-some-odd feet — power and sail, new and used.

“I feel strongly that this is the wave of the future for boat shows,” says David Dorrance, who manages the Essex office of Prestige Yacht Sales (Cutwater, Beneteau, Hunt and American Tugs), which sold a Hunt Surfhunter 29 brokerage boat at the show. “It’s a more intimate surrounding. It shouldn’t be a feeding frenzy. Essex is a great boating community and a great destination for families.”

Another veteran of the big Florida shows tells me he liked the “feel” of the Essex spring show. “It doesn’t feel like a boat show,” he says. “It felt more like a rendezvous. No one was pushy.”

And if the weather cooperates, as it mostly did this year, the timing is good, given the dearth of in-water spring shows in the region. “What else is there in the water in the spring in this part of New England?” says Doug Domenie, vice president and general manager of Brewer Dauntless Shipyard and Marina and a driving force behind the event.

There were no attendance figures because admission is free, but most agree that the numbers were close, if not down a tad, from last year’s show. “Not thousands of people, but you don’t need thousands to have a good show,” says Ben Wilde, of Wilde Yacht Sales, which sells Nordic Tugs and Ranger Tugs.

Wilde had a good show. His business sold a Ranger 27, took an order on a new Nordic Tug 39 and is close on a brokerage Nordic Tug 42, according to Wilde, who says the event drew visitors from Maryland, Vermont, Maine, Illinois and Canada, in addition to the southern New England states. “It was very good. We had a lot of good people.”

The half-dozen Essex-based brokers behind the show are already discussing its future while they contemplate the assorted issues that accompany growth. What’s the right way to grow the event? What about parking? Should it become more of a townwide affair? Will they need a larger site? How big should the show ultimately become? How do they retain its character?

“I think the show really has legs,” Dorrance tells me. “We need to grow it in a smart way. I’m conservative. Grow it slowly.”

That seems to be the consensus. Domenie says the right number is probably in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 boats, with more diversity in vessel type and maybe 10 to 15 dealers and brokers, at most.

Increasing participation shouldn’t be difficult. “We could probably double the size of the show in a day,” says Clute Ely, president of Boatworks Yacht Sales (Grand Banks, Hatteras, Cabo, Jupiter, Blue Star), which has one of its three offices in Essex. “I think in 10 years this will be really big in the town of Essex.”

But, he noted, “We’re really trying to keep it quality over quantity.”

These days, that’s the smart way to grow.



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